3 MINUTE READ
A blocker to both personal and professional effectiveness is a blend of two biases we all have.
Biases are not inherently bad; we have them because our brains have to - very quickly - assess, prioritize, and organize the non-stop barrage of information it receives. While our brains can process approximately 11 million bits of information every second, our conscious minds can only handle up to about 60 bits. Because so much of this filtering happens at the unconscious level, there is a lot of processing going on that we’re not aware of.
While there are likely unnumerable cognitive biases, 188 have been mapped (see graphic below). The two for today’s focus are, especially in combination, particularly troublesome for us to navigate.
The first bias to consider is called Superiority Illusion, and we all have it (although your bias may lead you to believe that you don't). We generally think we’re smarter, more attractive, have more engaging personalities, and are nicer than other people perceive us to be. This gap is the result of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter that helps us motivate, focus, enjoy pleasure, and find things interesting.
Superiority Illusion bias likely factors into the sometimes stunningly tragic auditions on tv talent shows, frequently causes people to believe they are better equipped to handle a gun than they are, and is probably what motivates your co-worker of middling intelligence to pontificate ad nauseum in team meetings.
It keeps us happy and feeling good about ourselves and is usually only a minor irritant to others; until it meets and marries the second bias we’re focusing on today: Confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias, simply put, is our tendency to affirm information that aligns with our existing beliefs, opinions, and theories and to dismiss information that refutes them.
The results of Confirmation bias, combined with Superiority Illusion bias, are perhaps best exemplified online. Particularly with social media, where seemingly everyone is an expert, we are quick to state our opinions as fact, and can often easily be provoked into belittling, disparaging, and sometimes insulting anyone or anything refuting our thinking.
Now that we’re aware of this bias combo, what can we do about it?
The best thing we can do is to approach people, places, experiences, and our beliefs from a place of curiosity rather than certainty. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says, “the learn-it-all does better than the know-it-all.” When he assumed leadership of Microsoft in 2014, he observed a culture in which everyone in every meeting felt they had to prove they were the smartest one in the room. This type of thinking stymies learning, collaboration, and creative thinking/problem-solving. It’s not good for businesses and it’s not good for us as humans - we are designed to grow, learn, and evolve.
You can also fight against the tendency we all have to be driven by our egos. Be open. Admit when you’re wrong. Pull yourself out of your perspective and hover at 30,000 feet for a while. Does the view look different?
And lastly, pause before you react. This one is particularly challenging for me, as I am well-wired (not hard-wired – I am making progress here) toward reactivity and impulsivity. The work is in the pause. It’s giving time and space for the information to travel from the limbic part of our brains (where our fight or flight response system lives) to our pre-frontal cortex, which enables us to be thoughtful and responsive.
Changing our largely automated systems and processes is hard. I know this phrase is on pretty much every other Instagram post, but it's true that what works is going for progress, not perfection. Be nice to yourself as you start moving toward more objectivity. And you'll know you're making progress when you start noticing that you're being nicer to others. Or at least thinking about it.
Scientific Reports | The Capacity of Cognitive Control Estimated From a Perceptual Decision Making Task (2016)
Scientific American | The Superiority Illusion: Where Everyone is Above Average
NPR | Understanding Unconscious Bias
WebMD | What is Dopamine
Fast Company | Satya Nadella: The C In CEO Stands For Culture (2017)
LinkedIn | Satya Nadella on Growth Mindsets (Direct quote)
Graphic: Visual Capitalist